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Skiing in Cacti Country

February 14, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

MT. LEMMON, Ariz. — We are on skis, looking across the snow toward the border of Mexico. An hour ago we were sunning beside a Tucson swimming pool.

This is the Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski area in the United States, a little more than 60 miles from the Mexican border.

Mt. Lemmon is having one of its best ski seasons, with a snow base of about 48 inches since mid-December. Weekends draw more than 500 skiers daily.

There is a growing appreciation of Mt. Lemmon as a winter attraction. Visitors to Tucson now bring skis along with golf clubs and tennis rackets.

Mt. Lemmon is the only U.S. peak to be named for the first woman to reach its summit. Sara Lemmon made the ascent in 1881 after she came here from Oakland on her honeymoon. Her husband, Prof. John Gill Lemmon, was a botanist.

(She also is credited with having contributed significantly to the choice of the golden poppy as California's state flower.)

Modern visitors will find a chairlift atop Mt. Lemmon. It's a double chair from the base area of Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley at 8,200 feet to the summit at 9,100 feet.

Bunny Hill Provided

The vertical drop of 900 feet provides for 16 runs, the longest of which is three miles. About 35% are for advanced skiers, 45% for intermediates and 20% for beginners. There is a bunny hill for children and first-time skiers.

Ski Valley Lodge at the base of the lift doesn't have overnight accommodations, but is noted for the cuisines of its Iron Door Restaurant, open year-round. The restaurant's name comes from the legend of the Lost Mine With the Iron Door, which visitors like to believe may still hide a fortune in gold somewhere nearby.

The lodge also has a snack bar, gift shop, ski rentals and lift tickets. Rentals are $12 daily for skis, boots and poles. All-day lift tickets are $20 for adults, $12 for children. Private ski lessons are $16 per hour; group lessons are $10 for two hours.

The alpine hamlet of Summerhaven is a mile from the ski lift. Formerly the Alpine Lodge, there's the Alpine Inn, under new ownership. Its four units include one with a king-sized bed. Rates for a weekend night are $75-$80; weekdays, $65-$70. Telephone (602) 576-1500.

Near the inn and the village arts and crafts shop are cabin rentals for about $65 per night. For help in finding a cabin, and for ski area information, phone the Ski Valley Lodge at (602) 576-1321.

Climate Changes

Driving up the winding two-lane road from Tucson, which is 25 miles below the ski lift, to the ski area is to experience the dramatic vistas that enchanted the Lemmons during their honeymoon ascent by horseback and on foot more than a century ago.

The ascent is through five life zones, a climate range equal to the change from Mexico to Canada. The foliage changes from saguaro cactus to ponderosa pines.

The winter drive up the General Hitchcock Highway usually reaches the snow level at about 5,000 feet. Carry chains whether driving your own or a rental car.

Geology Vista Point offers a view of rock sculptures enhanced by snow. Deer paw for bits of grass in meadows that in springtime come alive with wildflowers and more than 40 species of birds.

For information on resort hotels, guest ranches, recreational, historical and cultural attractions, contact the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, 450 W. Paseo Drive, Suite 110, Tucson, Ariz. 85705, phone (602) 624-1817.

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